10 Potential Perils of Ebooks

I'm no Luddite, as I expect this blog demonstrates. However, I do continue to have serious reservations about a future in which digital books replace paper books.  Here are some things I think we definitely need to ponder as a society before making the switch.
  1. Privacy. Libraries are forbidden by law from disclosing the books their patrons check out, but ebook retailers are allowed to monitor every aspect of your ebook usage ... even if you buy the book outright.  This includes tracking which books you buy, monitoring which pages you read, where you read them, when you read them, how much time you spend on each page, passages you highlighted, and any annotations you may make. All this info goes into a database where, presumably, it becomes available to pretty much anyone that wants it badly enough, including authorities. Think about that the next time you read a book that advocates overthrowing the government, or happens to mention how to make a bomb, or - in the course of an otherwise innocent mystery - discusses ways to get away with murder.  Honestly, I'm not sure how I'm ever going to read an ebook in future without constantly second-guessing what inferences Homeland Security may be drawing from my literary choices.
  2. Content Filtering.  Another use for the data ebook companies are collecting? They're using it to determine how to make content more "marketable."  I just came back from listening to an author talk about how he's going to cut one chapter out of the next edition of his book because data shows most people are skipping it. So what happens if the folks publishing "War & Peace" find out most people are skipping chapters 9-15? Do they cut those chapters out so that they can sell more copies? What about controversial texts, like the next Democracy in America? (Ebook publisher: "Hmmm, they don't seem to like the parts that are critical about Americans, so let's cut those out.") The next The Prince? (Ebook publisher: "They're loving the stuff about soulless capitalism - let's beef those parts up!") The next Communist Manifesto? (Ebook publisher: "Wow, this is so not PC! Someone take out all that damned stuff about socialism!")
  3. Recommendation Filtering. The same gentlemen mentioned above waxed enthusiastically about the "Netflix-ization" of ebook recommendations, by which he meant Netflix's algorithm that recommends new videos based on your past preferences.  Who needs the bother of browsing through bookstores when technology can hook you up with something you're sure to enjoy, based on an analysis of your previous reading habits? Am I the only one that considers the prospect of a constant drip-feed of filtered content terrifying?  It's hard to imagine a more effective way to narrow rather than broaden minds.  Seriously, have you ever tried actually "browsing" the content available via Netflix? Everything's been shoved into so many micro-categories that it's almost impossible to stumble upon something unexpected.
  4. Price. You know what paper books offer but that ebooks lack? (Besides that lovely book smell, I mean?) An aftermarket. I don't have economic information about used book sales, but I'm betting they constitute a huge percentage of total book sales every year. One understands that neither paper nor digital book publishers are fond of used book sales, as they potentiallyreduce sales of volumes at full price. No doubt it's true that some people who buy used books could afford full price. However, a considerable number of people who buy used books do so because they can't afford full price.  For them, a world without paper books offers only two options: library or nothing. Which leads me to my next concern ....
  5. Accessibility.  Say what you will about the bulk and fragility of paper books - at least no expensive infrastructure is required to read them.  All you need is some light and a set of eyes. Ebooks, on the other hand, require an e-device (kindle, e-phone), batteries, and internet connectivity.  All of which can be financial challenging for the 15% of U.S. citizens who live in poverty. Build all the libraries you want, but if the only thing they stock is digital content, they're of next to no use to folks who can't afford digital e-readers. Ironically, these are the very folk who are in most desperate need of free/easy access to books, as literacy is arguably the most critical enabler to reversing poverty.  If you want to widen the social divide in the U.S. even further, then withholding books from poor people is a great way to set about it. 
  6. Portability.  Forget loaning your book to anyone else. Ebooks come with highly restrictive licenses designed to prohibit the sharing of content. You can also forget about giving books as gifts.
  7. Digital Mortality.  It's common to think of digital content as immortal, but the fact is, it's all stored on hard drives that have the lifespan of about three years - in other words, the lifespan of a hardy gerbil. Server farms are constantly having to switch them out in order to ensure that content isn't lost. Consider this: if a server farm were to be deprived of electricity for a year, at least one third of the content would vanish; if deprived of electricity for three years, all the information stored on all the servers in all the world would vanish entirely.   IT folks call this scenario "digital apocalypse." Without books to help sustain our social and cultural identity, I'm pretty sure the apocalypse wouldn't stop there.
  8. Continuity.  Such is the nature of competition that the current handful of ebook companies are all offering their content in incompatible formats. Which makes the business of switching platforms potentially perilous if you want to retain access to the ebooks you've purchased, as there's no guarantee they'll port to your new device. Oh, and did I mention that ebook companies can decide to delete any ebook you've purchased from them at their will? Just what our society needs - an even more efficient and full-proof method of burning books.
  9. Attention Span.  Research indicates that in order for the brain to gain the full benefit of reading, distractions must be avoided.  It is, of course, absolutely possible to use e-readers in ways that minimize distraction. However, this requires resisting the temptation to check texts and click on embedded hyperlinks - temptations which paper books do not offer.
  10. Glare.  I know that ereaders are getting better at minimizing glare, but in the meantime I can't be the only person tired of constantly having to adjust my position so as to avoid glare and consequent eye strain. It's enough to put a person off reading entirely.

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